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'Phantom' goes underwater, but not deep ★★

On March 8, 1968, about 1,800 miles northwest of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean, the diesel-powered Soviet submarine K-129 exceeded its crush depth and imploded, for mysterious reasons a screenwriter would find intriguing on which to speculate. All 98 of its crew members died. The sub sank with three ballistic nuclear missiles as well as two nuclear torpedoes.

How close did the world come to a serious, serious problem that day? What really happened? Did the commander go rogue, and why?

Regarding "Phantom," here's another matter of speculation: How did this submarine movie turn out so unseaworthy?

Facts first, then opinions. This is a no-dialect movie. Nobody does a Slavic accent; rather, the American actors, chiefly Ed Harris (as the delusional, haunted captain), David Duchovny (as a KGB agent on board for a fateful trip) and William Fichtner (as the captain's loyal No. 2), swap ethnicity for relatability, though Fichtner can't help himself from here and there adding a slight foreignness, a weary Russian cadence to his lines.

Just back from a three-month tour of duty, Capt. Dmitri Zubov takes command of the aging nuclear-armed missile, which is equipped with a sonar-repelling device being tested by the cryptic operatives onboard. These men have "ruthless secret service who don't take nyet for an answer" written all over their foreheads, and they want the sub for their own high-risk purposes. Harris' captain, in between visions of flames and dying men, refuses to give ground, setting a long, narrow, clammy stage for a showdown.

The screenwriter and director Todd Robinson hasn't made a bad film with "Phantom," merely a stiff one. Would rhetorical questions such as "Do you think we can be redeemed for the things we've done?" come across better in Russian, subtitled into English? If so many lines are followed, like clockwork, by a footnote-type add-on ("Ah, yes, your father ... he commanded the first submarine brigade of the Baltic Fleet"), then can "Phantom" ever really get going as human drama?

Robinson is undone partly by his own workmanlike touch as a writer, and partly by matters of casting. I like Harris, and he's quite moving here, but every time Duchovny reappears the overall energy level sinks to crush depth. Fichtner, a longtime supporting player, clearly appreciates the opportunity to tackle a larger and more sympathetic role than usual. He conveys that enjoyment to the audience, in the service of his character. Nice job. All around him, though, "Phantom" makes a middling suspense case for its fictional scenario of what happened, down there in the depths of the Cold War.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Phantom' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence)
Running time: 1:37
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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